It is a little while since I have mentioned my favourite writer in this newsletter. July is the month in which she died when she was only 41 (Jane Austen died on 18 July, 1817). Today, even if they haven’t read her novels, most people are aware that Jane Austen wrote ‘classic’ novels which are considered amongst the finest of all time (the very finest ever, in my view!). Today, those who are so foolish as to criticise her works, do so knowing that for more than 200 years, her books have delighted and challenged readers all over the world.
But Austen’s contemporary reviewers did not have 200 years of wisdom and received opinion upon which to draw. Some ignored her novels, others like Sir Walter Scott knew they had been outclassed, and some showed prescience and insight when they wrote about this new star on the literary scene.
I was thrilled when a book-loving friend recently sent me a review that came out the year after Jane Austen died (thanks, Chris). It was written by a Scot, Reverend Robert Morehead, and I think his review is wonderful – so insightful and well phrased, that I’d like to share it with all of you, in the hopes that it will encourage you to go and find those six novels and read them yet again:
Review of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion by Robert Morehead (1774-1842)
“When this period arrives, we have no hesitation in saying, that the delightful writer of the works now before us [Northanger Abbey and Persuasion], will be one of the most popular of English novelists, and if, indeed, we could point out the individual who, within a certain limited range, has attained the highest perfection of the art of novel writing, we should have little scruple in fixing upon her. She has confined herself, no doubt, to a narrow walk. She never operates among deep interests, uncommon characters, or vehement passions. The singular merit of her writings is, that we could conceive, with the slightest strain imagination, any one of her fictions to be realized in any town or village in England (for it is only English manners that she paints) that we think that we are reading the history of people whom we have seen thousands of times, and that with all this perfect commonness, both of incident and character, perhaps not one of her characters is to be found in any other book, portrayed at least in so lively and interesting a manner.
She he has much observation, – much fine sense, – much delicate humour, – many pathetic touches, – and throughout all her works, a most charitable view of human nature, and a tone of gentleness and purity, that are almost unequalled. It is unnecessary to give a particular account of the stories here presented to us. They have quite the same kind of merit with the preceding works of their author. As stories they are nothing in themselves, though beautiful and simple in their combination with the characters. The first is the more lively, and the second the more pathetic; but such is the facility and the seemingly exhaustless invention of this lady, that, we think, like a complete mistress of a musical instrument, she could have gone on in the same strain for ever, and her happy talent of seeing something to interest in the most common scenes of life, could evidently never have been without a field to work upon”
Extract from The Scots Magazine May 1818
“Highest perfection of the art of novel writing”? – yes, indeed! Do you agree? Let me know what you think about this and your other thoughts by leaving a comment.